Last week’s high court decision that Police tactics at 2009’s climate camp were illegal has been hailed as a victory for civil rights campaigners and the protest movement in general. Yet the significance of the judgement could be overplayed. The court’s decision did not go as far as civil liberties groups would like, passing up the opportunity to engage in a truly radical shake-up of policing and settling instead to allow the police to carry on much as before, though perhaps a little nicer and with an extra eye on for regulations.
The court has held back from declaring the use of kettling itself to be illegal and the Met have subsequently reaffirmed their commitment to the use of the tactic where they consider it necessary. This judgement of course only applies to the policing of the 2009 climate camp protest. Nonetheless, it has inevitably been interpreted in the light of the student protests that convulsed the capital at the end of 2010, which saw the highly controversial tactic deployed for hours at a time, often in dangerous situations and in icy conditions.
Though the Met have defiantly vowed to continue to deploy kettling where they see fit the recent anti-cuts demo notably did not witness large scale kettles deployed. Merely the threat of its use was sufficient to dramatically raise the temperature of the protest however, as Liberty – who provided legal observers and stewards on the day – concluded in a recent report.
This isn’t the final word on kettling. The tactic is being challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. But until a decision is reached the police will continue to use it. With this in mind, the court must be considered to have missed a valuable opportunity to effect more radical change in policing. Despite paying lip service to the civil right to protest, the Met has regularly shown itself willing to employ extremely coercive and violent means to control protests in the two years since the climate camp incident. The knowledge that they retain the prerogative to employ this hugely resource-hungry, expensive and provocative tactic will continue to greatly raise the temperature of future protests at a time when tempers are already running high due to economic insecurity and government austerity. It seems likely this will lead to more frequent, more violent clashes between protesters and the police which will be used in turn to justify more aggressive, more restrictive crowd control tactics. In allowing the police to retain the right to kettle, but rebuking them for excessive use of force the Court has essentially handed the met a stick and asked them to play nicely with it. A truly progressive move would have been to take the stick away altogether.
6 Billion Ways is a progressive conference organised by, amongst others, Friends of the Earth, The World Development Movement and War on Want. It took place yesterday in various locations around Shoreditch though primarily in the RichMix arts centre on Bethnal Green Road. The program included discussions on the history of money, rethinking democracy and the roll of music in protest movements. It was, in essence a younger, hipper Marxism.
The discussion on ‘Rebel Rock’ in particular prompted me to think about the role of music – and art generally – in protest movements and whether their impact can be overstated. Tom Lehrer was once asked whether he thought his satirical songs had affected the politics of his time. He replied that they’d had about the same impact as “those Berlin cabaret shows that did so much to stop the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s”. Debate about the role of political art often expresses this scepticism. Yet others maintain, and it seems instinctively true that art does affect people and so political art – be it ‘Guernica’ or ‘Killing in the Name’ must help somehow. This particular session was chaired by Yasmin Khan from War on Want and featured journalist and music critic Robin Denslow, John Pandit (Pandit G) from Asian Dub Foundation and Faithless’ Dave Randall. All three panellists were clear that they felt that political music was important and that it should continue. John Pandit talked in particular about the song ‘Free Satpal Ram’ and Robin Denslow discussed “Free Nelson Mandela”. Of course neither claimed that these songs were the agent of liberation of their respective subjects and few would have agreed had they said so.
So, in what sense did this music aid the cause? No one who is passionately committed to nuclear expansion would join CND after listening to ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’. However, Lehrer said that someone who is on the fence or moving towards a position may be encouraged to take the leap. The panellists were all more positive in their expression today but they expressed the same idea. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ did not convince the Apartheid regime to do so but it did convince enough of those all important undecideds to reject the prevailing image Mandela as a terrorist. In this way it strengthened support for the Anti-apartheid movement in the UK.
This seems to be the function that art performs. It contributes a discourse, often more convincing because it is at one remove from direct political rhetoric, to a wider paradigm. In doing so it helps assure those who believe in that paradigm that they are in the right and may help to nudge those not firmly committed to remaining outside it. One could say the same about the 6 Billion Ways conference. Aside from an opportunity to network with progressives from various organisations, it provides a chance to immerse oneself more fully within a paradigm that defines itself as at odds with much of mainstream society. Opposition can be draining so it is beneficial to spend a day surrounded by posters, leaflets, discussions, speeches and activists who – whatever their ideological particulars – affirm by their presence the validity of your position. Tim Montgomery will probably never attend 6 Billion Ways, and would walk out unconvinced if he did. It is unlikely that the solution to rampant capitalism or environmental degradation will spring fully formed from a conference like this, no one expects it to. But by attending they affirm their participation in a process they believe will find one.